I was sad to hear of the recent death of Paul Wilson who passed away aged only 66.
He was, of course, afforded a minutes applause on Saturday before the Celtic and Hibs game.
Despite that, I was also disappointed to see so little fanfare given to him by our own fans especially online.
Born in Bangalore, India to an Irish-Scots father and Dutch-Portuguese family Wilson’s racial ambiguity often caused confusion as what bracket to place him under.
He was, in fact, a local lad who lived in Cumbernauld and just so happened to possess very dark skin colour which likely originated from his mother’s side.
Part of the legendary Quality Street gang that emerged from the Celtic youth set-up in the years after our European Cup success he made his debut aged only 19 on September 23rd, 1970 in a League Cup game against Dundee at Celtic Park and marked it with aplomb, scoring in a 5-2 victory.
His time at Celtic was up before I was even born but being a child of the 80’s I became familiar with him via the many Celtic VHS releases from both the end of that decade and the beginning of the following one. As anyone who was a fan of the team at that time would tell you – and indeed as I have recounted on many occasions through the ‘Dark Days’ series of articles I’ve composed for the blog (the last one will be up today) – those VHS tapes that allowed you to relive the many glorious moments of the past were extremely important, back then.
They allowed you to check out of the often dour reality of the time with the team sitting well off the pace in the league, habitually exiting Europe early and coming up short on the silverware front season on season. Within them lay distinct evidence that the club was once mighty at home and abroad and that there was a time when we were sweeping all before us at a canter and regularly cuffing Rangers.
With his long dark locks and deep dark skin combined with his searing pace and elegant style Wilson couldn’t be missed.
Indeed I seem to remember him being far taller than what he actually was which was a barely average 5’9.
His powerful on-field runs made his presence seem much larger.
That plus I suppose anyone looks big standing beside the diminutive trio of Jimmy Johnstone, Lou Macari, and Dixie Deans.
My father remembers Wilson as a talented but inconsistent player who often blew hot and cold. Though when he was hot he was very hot. Let’s be honest, would he have survived multiple seasons under Jock Stein if he wasn’t? I think not.
Some of the highlights of those old VHS tapes and of course of Paul’s career included a magnificent volley in the away leg of the 1973/74 European Cup quarter-final against Basel which gave Celtic the lead. Although we were beaten 3-2 that night the goal was vital as Celtic went on to win the tie 6-5 on aggregate to progress to the infamous semi-final against the hammer throwers of Atletico Madrid.
His first European strikes had come a couple of years earlier when he hit a double in a European Cup first round 9-0 slaughter of Finnish Champions KPV who Celtic would defeat by 14-0 over the two legs which remains the clubs record European aggregate score to this day.
He also scored against Olympiacos in an early European Cup exit in 74/75′, as well as against Valur in the 75/76′ Cup Winners Cup who Celtic would go on to defeat 9-0 on aggregate and his final European strike in 20 appearances on the continent for the Hoops came in a 5-0 European Cup first round hammering of Luxembourg’s Jeunesse Esch who Celtic would eventually defeat 11-1 on aggregate.
Domestically his greatest moment came when he hit a double against Airdrie in the 1975 Scottish Cup Final at Hampden in front of 75,000 spectators. This came only days after he had lost his mother. Celtic won the game and the cup with a 3-1 victory.
He also has the distinction of being the only players to score in four finals at Hampden in a single season. The goals came in the 1974/75 campaign where he scored in the Dryborough Cup against Rangers, the 6-3 League Cup hammering of Hibs, the aforementioned Scottish Cup final against Airdrie and finally in the Glasgow Cup final against Rangers. Overall that was his best campaign as he hit the net 23 times in all competitions to finish up as Celtic’s top scorer.
Of course Paul’s skin colour didn’t go unnoticed by our many rival clubs supporters and in particular those of Rangers at that time.
It wasn’t unusual for “Paul Wilson is a darkie!” to ring out from the Rangers end during Old Firm matches. Celtic fans would retort with: “I’d rather be a darkie than a hun!”
Other racial nicknames given to him included ‘Jungle Fresh’ and ‘Sabu’. Such abuse was never given much attention by the Scottish or British press. The issue only began to get highlighted when West Bromwich Albion fielded the trio of Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis in the late 70s down south. Despite all of this Paul never complained and often used the abuse to drive himself on.
His final match came almost exactly 8 years after his debut on the 2nd of September 1978 against Dundee Utd which like his debut was also at Celtic Park.
He moved to Motherwell for a season before then making a dozen appearances for Partick Thistle the following term which would be his last in the professional game, finishing up aged only 29.
It was claimed that he had never fully recovered from his mother’s death five years earlier.
Paul exited the game for good in the early 80’s and pretty much disappeared out of sight. Sadly he never engaged much with the club or the support again.
In total, he scored 52 goals in 214 games winning 11 major honours in the process.
He passed away on the 18th of September this year and will be remembered fondly by those who had the chance to see him play either live or on video in what was a terrific era at Celtic and when only the best broke through.
I’ll finish with a quote. In reference to the racial abuse Paul regularly had to endure during matches a conversation between him and the manager went apparently as thus:
Jock Stein: “Answer them by scoring.”
Paul Wilson: “How about if I score two?”